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A Fan's Notes

Two cities and the true power of sport.


If Memphis has a sister city, it's not Nashville, it's Detroit.

Two cities scarred forever by racial violence in the 1960s -- the 1967 riots in Detroit and the King assassination in 1968.

Two cities with increasingly black populations and white flight.

Two cities with large, underperforming public school systems that were both, coincidentally, searching for superintendents last year and employing the services of the Barton Malow consulting firm to oversee massive construction projects.

Two cities always battling morale problems.

Two cities where casinos are a significant part of the economy.

Two cities trying to make their downtowns work.

Whether it's significant or not I don't know, but three of the current top editors of The Commercial Appeal and two former top editors came here from Detroit papers. I suspect it has some influence on the way they view Memphis, but I don't know for sure.

I do know that the 20 years I spent in Michigan, part of it near Detroit, had a lasting influence on me. I can't get the Tigers, Lions, Pistons, and Red Wings out of my system no matter how bad they are. I'm a Detroit fan for life.

I read the two Detroit daily papers every day to see what's going on in sports, politics, schools, and downtown development. It's uncanny how similar the stories are in Detroit and Memphis sometimes.

So of course I've been following the NBA's Detroit Pistons, who are having a bad season and are about to fire their coach once again. Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp wrote this week, "The Pistons aren't just a bad team, but a bad product as well wallowing in the public's apathetic oblivion."

That's the downside of the NBA, a team that gives you a regular dose of depression, not inspiration. The news, more often than not, is about losses, disgruntled players, coaches getting fired, demands for trades, declining attendance figures, and demands for a new arena. That's been the Detroit NBA story for the past decade or so.

But it wasn't that way 10 to 15 years ago, and that's why I can't make up my mind about the NBA and Memphis. In 1987 I screamed and threw something at my television for the only time in my life because the Pistons' star guard, Isaiah Thomas, threw an in-bounds pass right to Larry Bird in the final seconds of a semifinal playoff game that the Pistons had in the bag in Boston Garden. Bird fed Dennis Johnson for a layup, and the Celtics won the game and eventually the series. If Thomas simply throws the ball to the opposite end of the court, the Pistons win and go home to finish the series.

I've never been so caught up in a pro sports team in my life, before or since. When the Pistons won back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990, I think I actually slept better. I know I couldn't get enough of the Pistons and I hadn't lived in Michigan for almost 20 years.

That's the power of sport. At some point in your life, you become a fan. And even if you don't stay a fan for life, it's a hell of a lot of fun to be a fan, to care, and, especially, to follow a championship team.

It's not rational. I know ex-Pistons coach Chuck Daly was right when he said a pro basketball team is 12 individual, selfish corporations, often run by 22-year-olds who can do only one thing well, and that is play basketball. ESPN has been running a revealing series lately about the lifestyles of NBA millionaires, a dozen of whom we propose to bring to our city. I know it can get ugly and probably will.

But I remember throwing that shoe at my television 14 years ago when Thomas passed the damn ball to Bird. God, that was fun.

I'm not much of a fan of spectator sports anymore, but I understand those who are and I wouldn't begrudge them the opportunity to cheer for a Memphis team, even if it means you have to bitch at the team eight years out of 10. That's the bargain.

And I fully understand the problems of our schools and all that. But I can't get Detroit and Kaline and Howe and Thomas out of my system, and I suspect people in Detroit can't either, and that's why they put up with their teams, for better and for worse.

You can e-mail John Branston at

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